While paddling the Conasauga Sunday, I saw something I’ve never seen before: a bald eagle soaring with vultures. Bald eagles, though a national symbol of power, are, in fact, lazy birds.
They routinely steal fish from ospreys who are more skilled fish hunters, and, as it turns out, eagles have been known to follow vultures to carrion, where the larger, more powerful birds chase off the wake and steal the meal.
It was a surprising find on another surprising Georgia river as the Paddle Georgia scouting team of Gwyneth Moody, Vincent Payne, Keith Haskell and I stroked from near Dalton some 27 miles downstream to the river’s confluence with the Coosawattee.
A friend who paddled the Conasauga in the 1970s told me stories of a river filled with refuse and the dyes of textile plants—a river so nasty that the City of Calhoun downstream on the Oostanaula moved its drinking water intake to the Coosawattee in search of cleaner water.
What a difference a few decades and the Clean Water Act makes.
On this journey we circumnavigated Loopers Bend where Dalton Utilities, a Paddle Georgia sponsor this year, operates one of the largest sewage land application systems in the nation. The treated waste of the textile plants (and homes and businesses in Dalton) is now sprayed on fields and woods across more than 9,000 acres of land sandwiched between a massive bend of the Conasauga. It soaks into the ground where nature filters and cleans it further. Meanwhile, Dalton’s carpet plants use a fraction of the water they once did, and thus they produce less wastewater.
The result: today the river more often than not lives up to its name…a Cherokee word that some historians believe means “sparkling waters.”
But, it is really the area’s geography that gives this river its “wow” factor. The Ridge and
Valley region of northwest Georgia is a series of long ridges running from the southwest to the northeast separating wide valleys. There are no rolling hills, no narrow gaps for the river to cut through, no rocky fall lines filled with shoals and rapids.
The Conasauga, as north Georgia rivers go, is about as lazy as a bald eagle, but it bumps up against some beautiful bluffs. Periodically, long straightaways give way to sharp bends where ancient rocks redirect the river. It’s here that cedar and beech trees cling to the cliffs and relic hunters find 500 million year-old trilobite fossils.
Opposite one bluff, we pulled up on a sandbar littered with mussels, a fauna the Conasauga has in abundance. Buried in the sand near the edge of the water line was a massive southern pocketbook mussel, still living, filtering the river and cleaning it…for free—the best volunteer a Riverkeeper could ask for. The Coosa River Basin Initiative/Upper Coosa Riverkeepr, for whom I work when I’m not planning Paddle Georgia, would like to have several million more…but alas, two centuries of changes to the landscape has wreaked havoc on the river’s mussel populations.
Five species have been lost in the upper Coosa River basin; another seven are federally protected. As filter feeders—and relatively immobile invertebrates—they are among the first animals to feel the effects of pollution. Still, the Conasauga and its sister streams of the upper Coosa are home to 27 species of mussels, and a walk along almost any river sandbar can be every bit as exciting for shell hunters as a walk along a Gulf Coast beach.
This is but a glimpse of the river we’ll explore June 18-24 during Paddle Georgia 2016. As of March 7, about 90 spaces were still available. Sign up now! I’ll guarantee that at some point along our 103-mile journey, you’ll see something you’ve never seen before.
Paddle Georgia Coordinator
March 7, 2016